Interview with Remo
Engineer, songwriter, singer, keyboardist, producer offers some vital tips for today's indie recording artists
[Indie Journal] REMO, a lot of people know you from your music on the internet. What do you think of yourself as? Songwriter, recording artist, engineer? All of them?
REMO You forgot producer. I guess at this stage I'm a potpourri of all those titles. I had a few opportunities when I was younger to be a performing and recording artist, but I was a pro recording engineer and just could not walk away from that to gig. And knowing what I do today, I'm glad that I didn't and can now pursue my songwriting ideas with a greater knowledge then I had before. I hope I'm developing my own style that encompasses all I've learned to date. But my main goal is to be a songwriter at this point and go by way of publishing for other artists to record my material. I could produce someone else to do my material better than I can I believe.
[Indie Journal] How did you get started in the music business?
REMO Well, the usual, started at an early age to learn to play the keys. Spent my young adulthood trying to answer the question, "Why do they sound sooo much better recorded than they do live?" So I studied with my ears to examine what I was hearing, and then for years tried to emulate it until I learned how to do it.
As far as engineering goes, that's probably the biggest reason I had success at it for 10 years straight. I went to a recording school after going to GWU and majoring in music. Went studio to studio in Philly with my educated resume and was lucky enough to land an assistant engineer job. Did that for six months (running coffee, aligning machines, setting up mics. I was the engineers and producers lackey). Until one day, the engineer was snowed in and sick and could not make it to an important session. Well, I had the studio all ready to go, mics were all set and the board as well as I had done in the past for the engineer. The background singers all showed up. Next thing I know, the producer turned to me and said "Hey REMO, you think you could record the session?" Without hesitation I screamed, "Hell yeah, I'm ready when you are!"
Never looked back after that and I was booked the very same week as a staff engineer in that studio. The producer who gave me a break went wild over my performance for him (I saved him a bucket of money by going for it) and insisted I was more than ready to work with him again. Then the studio realized they should spread me around a bit, so I had plenty of work for a long time.
[Indie Journal] What did your job as an engineer entail? What was it specifically that you did?
REMO I think its best described as the middleman between the artist/producer and the recording medium and equipment. Got pretty technical as far as gear goes as I worked in many studios and they were all different. But the job remained the same, connect the artists and producer on how to achieve the "sound" they were looking for. Had to be a peacemaker many times as the pressure's coming from the record companies on the artist and producer can cause conflicts. Being the engineer, you new both sides (as well as being the answer man to both) of the issues, as they would discuss with me separately what their goals were and the sounds they were hoping to achieve. I tried my best to help any way I could make a good record, and that goes way past the bells, lights and whistles I had to operate for them. I had a lot of production input with the producers that wanted to work with me. I was pretty good at vocal coaching, too, and was called on many times to help the lead singer record themselves better.
If that didn't work, sometimes 15 takes on separate tracks, and then I would piece the performance together one word at a time to get that one good take. Whatever I had to do, I did it. It was very challenging and rewarding, as well.
[Indie Journal] Who did you work with? Anyone the readers might recognize?
REMO Yes, to name a few, Patti Labelle, Vanessa Wiliams, Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, Grover Washington Jr., Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, and shoot, lots of other big R&B acts. Philly was not loaded with that much huge rock acts at the time. Recorded plenty of rock acts, too, but not enough work on the particular projects to note them as major credits by name. Meaning I only did a session or two with them, but didn't record the entire songs.
[Indie Journal] What did you bring from your experience as an engineer to your own music?
REMO I am slowly developing, after a 10 year layoff with music, what I've wanted to do for a long time. Since getting back into songwriting in 2000, I have been converting my production knowledge to a completely digital medium. Most of my engineering experience was completely analog, with some digital thrown in. But it all works the same in the end. What I learned in analog on how to make a record still applies totally too how to make a record in digital. But, itís taken me awhile to get a handle on the new softwares out and I'm getting comfortable with it now. So I think my new material is getting better and better. I have not forgot anything I learned working as an engineer, and I have much more to apply yet to my songwriting.
[Indie Journal] What were you doing during that 10-year layoff from Music?
REMO Can I take the 5th? No ... really....I was pretty distraught when I realized it was best for me to give up engineering at that time. I worked hard for it and was also fortunate to have that opportunity. Leaving it weighted hard on my artistic soul, as well as my finances. Truthfully, I was in a daze, sorting out mentally about what to do for about six months. Happened to be the same time I met my wife, further realized at that point I wanted a family of my own, with her in it!
So I decided to go on to a floral design school, which I enjoyed and could still make money in a new career, selling some form of my art. Worked for some other shops for peanuts while I honed my new craft/skill for a couple of years. I then took the plunge and opened my own flower shop. Running a retail flower shop right now, but at about the year 2000, my wife made me realize that I should again bring music back into my life.
I see the world and my place in it a little different now, and I am enjoying the heck outta songwriting! Got plenty of engineering back into my life now, cept this time, itís for myself and for no pay. But I am happy and my wife was right, I need music making as part of mylife, in whatever capacity.
[Indie Journal] How would you describe your music?
REMO OK, genre-fying questions are not a huge forte of mine. I would say that I am trying to develop something new, but taking all I have learned and mix it up together and toss it out with an original idea. Yeah, itís classic rock mixed with funk and a little pop on top, I would say. I am trying hard to have a lyrical message that is meaningful to a listener, as well. I find that lacking for a long time in modern rock music. So hopefully, I'm on to something that is about to break new barriers, but is yet familiar.
[Indie Journal] Where do you get inspiration for your song lyrics?
REMO Man, I've mulled over that question often over the last couple years. I think I'm growing better at it as I dissect writing and poetry more and more. I try to take the context from my real feelings, most often current thoughts or lifetime ideas that stick in my head. Then, I try my best, in most cases, to make the thoughts less personal while elaborating on the lyric. I feel this way, everyone can hopefully relate to the feelings and take them in their own way, their own experiences or thoughts. Most of the time, the "Hook" is decided before the rest of the lyric is written.
[Indie Journal] What process do you use in writing songs? For example, what comes first, the music or the lyrics?
REMO Always music is first for me! BUT, that includes some melody, so actually in a lot of cases, they come at the same time. The refined lyrical idea comes at the end of the process for me, but sometimes the "Hook" lyric is in the beginning of the idea.
Usually, I get the tune going close to the way I'm hearing it, then, the lights go out, the lava lamps come on, (or I just close my eyes) and I roll the track. I then record whatever my thoughts where in melody and lyric off the top of my head. Mostly jibberish with good lyrical idea's mixed in that I'll refine later. I do it that way deliberately because I feel "Words and Music" together are the total picture, or in this case song. I am trying to let the music tell me what to say. The process is most natural for me this way. Thatís the method to my madness regarding the process.
[Indie Journal] How have your promoted your music?
REMO Badly! Never was an office kind of guy, I guess. I find that between my full time florist job and my songwriting as a second job that "Promotion" is what gets totally left out of my daily life. I have loved cohorting with my online musical peers, but that's mainly swapping idea's and knowledge for the good of music to come, more than promotion in my mind. Other than that, I have had little or no time for real promotion.
[Indie Journal] What has been your experience on the internet in promoting your music?
REMO The internet music scene is in a shambles. The best and only thing you can achieve at this point, in my mind, on the internet is just getting your name out there.
[Indie Journal] Do you see a future for independent artists on the net?
REMO Yes, surely do! Nothing's working now except to give your music away for free. But I believe the lack of developed talent by major labels will turn the public to find new and more exciting music on their own. If the majors don't embrace the internet and its ongrowing musical community, I believe the general public will. They are beginning to now.
[Indie Journal] Why do you suppose the major labels have been so slow to embrace the net and take advantage of the new technology?
REMO Well, the innovative move for them would be to embrace this new technology instead of shy away from it. I think its because there is sooo much file swapping and sharing going on though. But as they develop more ways for the song file's security I think thatís when we'll see more on line direct labels. Possibly cutting out the middlemen (The Stores) and offering a better price to the public. I've read this recently somewhere and I agree thatís what is going to happen. I donít think it'll replace music stores though, but I do think itís a win/win position for the record labels and the public eventually. Some sort of "security," I think, is needed with the swapping ease of mp3's and burn at home devices. Strides are being made in this right now.
[Indie Journal] Drawing on your background as an engineer and familiarity with the major labels, what is the major obstacle you see for those indies who would like to get the attention of the major labels?
REMO Well, the fact that the majors are failing big time even to sell CD's of their biggest promoted artists will cause major changes in how the majors operate. Seems to me they need to develop more talent, more variety, more interest in a greater amount of artists they carry. However, I have heard they will do just the opposite and scale down their roster of artists. Which I think is a HUGE mistake. That will feed into the majors unfortunate bottom line. The companies that see the need for more artists and not less will be the ground-breaking companies of the future.It is those innovative companies that the unsigned artists need to court. And the general public is starved for more variety. I hope and wish the majors will hear the general publics loud call for more variety that they are willing to pay for. The unsigned artists and songwriters should seek out the companies that are open-minded to future success, there will be a few who get it I think who come to light eventually.
[Indie Journal] Technically speaking, what kind of problems do you see with the indie music you hear on the net?
REMO Mostly final mix, or lack of "final mix." I think as a songwriter or as a musician, that sound itself needs to be studied as much as your other musical abilities. In this day and age where you can do a great amount or all of the work yourself, it's the well-rounded artists that will excel in the future. Keeping your recordings at a low cost but with high production values is the way to go, in my opinion. I see the need for most indie artists to understand more about compression and sonically how to blend the band into the song idea. EQ (equalization) is also a widely misused and not understood tool in recording. My biggest tip there is, be certain that "volume" is totally relative to "EQ." Get the hi hat (for example) where you want it in level, THEN EQ if necessary. Too many artists try to EQ first. Then adjust the volume. It is done just the other way around, for every instrument, including vocals. Get the volume in the mix right, and then adjust your EQ, it'll do wonders on your "final mix."
[Indie Journal] What could the artists do to improve the quality of their recordings, given that most of them record in home studios?
REMO In addition to the tips I just gave, I'll add that learning to use digital software is much more complex than the do it yourself machines that are out there, and have WAY more adjustment parameters which can be used to make a more finished sounding recording. Just because it's a demo doesn't mean it has to sound like a demo. And, you don't have to utilize midi to operate digital multitrack software. You can do it the old fashioned way, one track at a "live" time.
And edit away if necessary, later. I'm not a big fan of the do it yourself machines as they are expensive and very limiting to musicians who have a flair and understanding of sound and production. Any form of multitrack software is the future and now of recording, so I say the more you understand of it now, the less lost you will be in the future when it becomes the only and best option of recording. I feel the time is here now, go buy digital recording software and learn over a long period of time how to use it, one step at a time.
[Indie Journal] You mentioned earlier how you were a sort of "go between" with the artist and the producer in the studio. Another "set of ears" in the recording and mixing process. How important do you think it is for those artists doing their own recording to get another ear in before doing that "final mix" you mentioned? In other words, do you recommend that home recording artists have another artist, producer, engineer do their "final mix" or their mastering?
REMO I am positive that that would help 80 or more percent of all songwriter/musicians drastically. If itís the right set of ears, it would be best for everyone. No doubt, huge benefits in the finished song can be done at final mix time (by another set of ears). Money could be the best reason for not doing it, but if itís within reach, and you have someone that understands what your trying to do in the song, and then give them liberty to embellish it, it could be a great thing!!! I have always found that "Input" makes for the best producers. A good producer surrounds himself/herself with people they respect and trust and soaks up like a sponge their thoughts and idea's. Takes what he/she likes and throws the rest away. Thatís how all records are made by the majors, so emulating that someway in the songwriting process should do wonders to your song idea's and finished demo product.
[Indie Journal] The conception that many people across the US have of New Jersey is that it is one big chemical waste dump. Is that accurate?
REMO It seems to be accurate at about exit 20 and above in north NJ along the turnpike! I live off exit 4, quite different in southern NJ. Which, I will add, is one of the largest aquifers in the world. Famous for our "Pine Barrens" and lakes and sand, got some kickass beach and boardwalk combo's too along the seashore. Great location too, as NYC is only an hour and a half away and about 30 minutes to Philly and about 40 minutes to Atlantic City.Yeah, the turnpike gives us a bad rap in NJ, but we'd rather the rest of the world think itís horrible, we don't need any new neighbors here, hehe. Believe it or not, most of our population in NJ is in north NJ. I'mexpecting a NJ civil war soon as the Northerners try to encroach on our pristine expanses in southern NJ.
[Indie Journal] What kinds of things do you do in your off time, other than music?
REMO Oil painting, my outdoor garden railroading, pond and gardening. Canoe on occasion in my community's lakes and beaches. Learn to use my computer for different tasks. Run a full time Florist shop too.
[Indie Journal] Do you think it's true that the earth was populated by a race of space aliens?
REMO Aah man, you wanna hear my theory on that, OK, ready..."Aliens (and UFO's) are really humans of the future coming back in time to help us from ourselves."
[Indie Journal] Interesting theory! So what's in REMO's future?
REMO Wow, thatís a big question. I'm going with the flow and following any path that I naturally cross. I've learned patience as an artist and I'm continuing to apply that to my destiny (which is an ongoing event for me). I'm comfortable with myself enough to be willing to share with others. Hoping that trying to do the right things just leads me to the right paths, and a comfortable and rewarding life. Raising a family now, running a retail biz and writing songs has me most of the time in bliss. Hope I get more of what I seek in the future? Thank goodness for an extended family that understands me.
And Thank you Indie Journal and Fred Wheeler for shooting some questions at me. I hope your readers can read about whatever my future dealings will be.
REMO on www.freeaudioplayer.com/remo/